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Kubrick’s Cruise Kidman Schnitzler Sex Sizzler

An excerpt from ‘Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker’: Dreaming, With ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

by
David Mikics
August 11, 2020
Warner Bros.
Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) and Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) in Stanley Kubrick's ‘Eyes Wide Shut’Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.
Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) and Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) in Stanley Kubrick's ‘Eyes Wide Shut’Warner Bros.

A.I., the Aryan Papers, and Eyes Wide Shut all present characters who are locked into their roles and cannot be authentic: the robot boy who yearns to be accepted as real, the Jewish child forced to masquerade as a gentile, and the man Bill Harford who cannot quite dare to break through from dreaming about a sexual adventure to actually having one. Like Barry Lyndon, Bill remains on the outside looking in even when he’s at the center of the action.

The source for Eyes Wide ShutDream Story (Traumnovelle) by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese Jew and a rough contemporary of Freud—had for decades been one of Kubrick’s obsessions.

In his interview with Robert Ginna just after he finished making Spartacus, Kubrick revealed that he was already a passionate Schnitzler enthusiast nearly 40 years before Eyes Wide Shut. “For my part it’s difficult to find any writer who understood the human soul more truthfully,” he told Ginna. Schnitzler, he said, “had a very sympathetic, if somewhat all-seeing cynical point of view.” He predicted that Lolita would resemble Schnitzler, with “a surface of comedy and humor and vitality, and only gradually, as the story progresses, do you penetrate beneath this surface.” He said that after Lolita he was going to make a movie based on one of Schnitzler’s works. He probably meant Dream Story, which is among the hundreds of books that Kubrick shipped from London when he moved to New York with Christiane and his daughters in 1964.

The Schnitzler novella centers on a couple with a small daughter. The husband, Fridolin, and his wife, Albertine, exchange stories about their sexual fantasies, and Fridolin, struck by jealousy, sets out to have sex with another woman. He doesn’t succeed: After a series of near misses, including a visit to a masked orgy, he returns home from this “senseless night with its stupid unresolved adventures.” Dream Story ends with Fridolin confessing to Albertine the story of his night wanderings. The couple reaffirm their love and, at dawn, hear their daughter’s laughter coming from the next room.

The plot of Eyes Wide Shut stays close to Schnitzler, with Fridolin and Albertine transformed into Bill Harford, a present-day New York doctor, and his wife, Alice. But the mood of the film differs from that of the novel. The ultradomestic Kubrick makes adulterous letting go look both stifled and stifling, while Schnitzler gives erotic fantasy more room to play.

In a 2012 interview, Kirk Douglas claimed that Kubrick first found out about Schnitzler’s novella from Douglas’ psychiatrist, Herbert Kupper, during the making of Spartacus. This could be true, but it is tempting to think that Kubrick’s second wife, Ruth Sobotka, a Viennese Jew from Schnitzler’s milieu, gave him the book.

However he discovered it, Schnitzler’s Dream Story rapidly possessed Kubrick. He was galvanized by it, but also afraid of it, as was Christiane Kubrick. “Stanley was frightened of making the movie when he first read the novel,” Nicole Kidman reported. According to Tom Cruise, when Kubrick wanted to make Dream Story after Lolita, “Christiane told me she said, ‘Don’t ... oh, please don’t ... not now. We’re so young. Let’s not go through this right now.’ ”

Dream Story has a stylish air that bespeaks the man of the world, the promiscuous, socially adept author Arthur Schnitzler, but also a naked insight into the fantasies that live within a marriage. This nakedness frightened Kubrick, and Christiane too.

By the early ’70s Kubrick’s third marriage had proved its stability, and it seemed as if he was finally ready to make his Schnitzler movie. In April 1971 Warner Bros. production executive John Calley, Kubrick’s main patron at the studio, announced that the next Kubrick movie would be a version of Dream Story. Yet again Kubrick veered off: He decided to make Barry Lyndon instead.

For decades Kubrick was apprehensive about the self-exposure the Schnitzler project would exact from him. Dream Story was never far from his mind, but he could not actually commit himself to such an intimate, self-revealing movie. In the ’70s he fantasized about casting an actor in Dream Story who would have a comedian’s resilience, imagining Steve Martin or Woody Allen in the leading role. The film would be in black and white, perhaps a bittersweet romantic comedy like Allen’s Manhattan (1979). In a notebook from the ’80s he listed a series of possible leading men, including Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Alan Alda, Albert Brooks, Bill Murray, Tom Hanks, and “Sam Shepard????” Significantly, when Kubrick finally made his version of Dream Story, he cast an actor without a comic bone in his body, the earnest, highly deliberate Tom Cruise. Comedy would have been a weapon for the hero’s self-defense; Kubrick makes him, in the end, defenseless.

In the early 1980s Terry Southern briefly worked on a comic, quasi-pornographic version of Dream Story in which the doctor-hero is a gynecologist. Southern recalled that Kubrick was then thinking of the project as a “sex comedy, but with a wild and somber streak,” perhaps reminiscent of Blue Movie (1971), Southern’s novel about a Hollywood director who makes a pornographic film, which he dedicated “to the great Stanley K.” Kubrick’s notebooks show that he was contemplating the story of a husband drawn to a “mystery girl,” a Linda Lovelace- or Marilyn Chambers-like porn star. Kubrick’s notes conclude: “Wife plays porno cassette with her at end to stimulate him.” Kubrick wound up rejecting Southern’s broad, Strangelove-esque approach to Dream Story. A few years later, after finishing Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick was again looking for a screenwriter for the Schnitzler novella. John le Carré was summoned to Childwickbury for a talk about adapting Dream Story to the screen. He remarked to Kubrick that “Vienna of the ’20s may have been a hive of sexual license, but it was also a hive of social and religious bigotry, chronic anti-Semitism and Austrian repression and prejudice,” a place of “social as well as physical danger.” Kubrick and le Carré discussed where the story should be set. “Well, Stanley, I’ve thought about this,” le Carré said, “and I believe our best bet is: Go for a medieval walled city or country town that is visually confining.” After a pause Kubrick replied, “I think we’ll set it in New York.” And Kubrick’s New York does resemble a walled city, or a movie set. Like Max Ophüls’ Vienna in La Ronde (1950) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Kubrick’s New York is transparently staged, artificial.

Kubrick’s co-screenwriter for Eyes Wide Shut ended up being not le Carré but another British novelist, Frederic Raphael. Whereas Kubrick and Herr shared a camaraderie based in part on their Jewishness, the more prickly Raphael, who was also Jewish, felt divided from Kubrick on this score. He bristled at Kubrick’s determination to turn this story by a Viennese Jew into a decidedly non-Jewish film, and thought, rather unfairly, that Kubrick was trying to escape from his own Jewishness. Kubrick made at least one joke at Raphael’s expense, saying that he wanted a “Harrison Fordish goy” named Harford to play the lead role. Kubrick surely knew, as Raphael did not, that Ford’s mother was Jewish.

Raphael’s memoir about working with Kubrick has many axes to grind, some of them rather silly: The Female Subject was his proposed title for the film, far better, he says, than Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick of course stuck with his striking title, which probably echoes Ben Franklin’s line, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards”: Monitor your spouse, but not too closely.

Kubrick insisted that Raphael eliminate all traces of sparkle from Eyes Wide Shut’s dialogue. This is a surprising decision, since Eyes Wide Shut is what Stanley Cavell calls a comedy of remarriage: A couple who are on the rocks go through a series of trials and finally realize that they belong together. From Shakespeare to the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, the comedy of remarriage features witty, rapid-fire dialogue, replete with one-upmanship. Not in Kubrick, though. Dreams aren’t witty or agile, and neither is Eyes Wide Shut, where the pace is slow, sometimes leaden. As in 2001 and The Shining, Kubrick relies on banality. There are many instances of “parroting,” as critic Michel Chion has noticed: Characters echo one another’s lines word for word, as if in partial disbelief.

Kubrick’s movie is poised and solemn like a dream. The movie’s colors usher the viewer into a carefully constructed world. The wonderfully glowing blue light that appears in many of its scenes is, Chion remarks, both “cosmic” and “intimate,” and a radiant red pool table stands at the center of the late scene between Bill and Ziegler (played by director Sydney Pollack), the film’s arch macher and reality instructor. Though Kubrick didn’t live to complete the sound mix for the movie, the music choices show his usual inspired touch: a Shostakovich waltz, dizzying and lush and echt Viennese, an ominous, growling chant for the orgy scene, and a Ligeti piece featuring a repeated note hammered on the piano. The Ligeti “appears inscrutable and unbidden,” writes critic Kate McQuiston, with its simple repeated notes evoking Bill’s frustrated quest.

Kubrick selected the real-life Hollywood couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman for the film, and in some measure Eyes Wide Shut is covertly about the publicity-haunted life of these two stars. The film concerns a secretive cult that stages orgies. Cruise was a Scientologist, and there were persistent rumors that he was gay. The secrets hidden within a celebrity marriage, like the hermetic cult followed by Cruise, are shadowy undertones in Kubrick’s movie.

Kubrick, like Kidman, had to contend with a Scientologist in the family. His daughter Vivian, much to her father’s distress, left home in the mid-’90s to live in Los Angeles. Ken Adam said, “Stanley became overpowering to her. ... She really adored Stanley but he tried to control every move she made.” Kubrick wanted Vivian to write the score for Eyes Wide Shut as she had for Full Metal Jacket, but she refused. Later, while he was editing the movie, Stanley and Vivian “had a huge fight,” Christiane remembered. “He was very unhappy. He wrote her a 40-page letter trying to win her back. He begged her endlessly to come home from California.” Vivian had joined the Church of Scientology in 1995, though the Kubrick family didn’t know this until Stanley’s funeral four years later, after which she cut herself off from her mother and sisters.

Kubrick picked Cruise and Kidman not just because they were married but because each of them embodied what he needed for Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick had admired Cruise’s tour de force, against-type performance in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989). In Stone’s movie Cruise played a paraplegic Vietnam vet tormented by impotence, showing a gawky, ill-at-ease, masochistic side that cut against his usual cardboard-cutout macho profile. In his earlier movies Cruise had a clear urge to conquer, a slightly fascistic grin, and something falsely bright about his expressions of triumph. But in Born on the Fourth of July, as in Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise isn’t triumphal at all. His gestures resemble those of a bulky marionette. This herky-jerky awkwardness doesn’t look like vulnerability at first, but it is. There is a family resemblance between Keir Dullea in 2001, Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon, and Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut: All three specialize in reacting to what they see and hear, rather than taking action. This is a challenging task for an actor, especially for one like Cruise, whose face tends to be masklike, with limited emotional range.

Kubrick turned Cruise’s limits to good use, but one still wishes that Eyes Wide Shut had a leading man who could loosen up at times. The movie conspicuously evokes North by Northwest (1959): The orgy is held in Glen Cove, site of Lester Townsend’s mansion in the Hitchcock film, and the two movies share a theme of retracing one’s steps and trying to figure out what part to play, all the while being manipulated by the powers that be. But Cary Grant, supple, stylish, and guarded, is a far cry from Cruise, with his defensive body armor.

Nicole Kidman is the opposite of Cruise. Soft and fluid in her movements, she has a surprising inward strength. In the words of her greatest admirer, David Thomson, “This woman has everything that makes a voyeur dream: a delightful skin, a small kissable mouth ... a sensual intelligence. ... Yet at the same time she is totally buttoned up. She resists, she is smooth and much too aesthetic, she is vain and prudish. ... What is inside this sweet cake? Nobody can be sure of this woman.” Kidman, who seems happiest playing married, domestic types like Alice, is no high-rolling femme fatale, but there is, as Thomson says, something in her that makes us unsure. In Eyes Wide Shut’s greatest scene, Bill will be thrown utterly off balance when she reveals her fantasy about a naval officer she glimpsed the previous summer at Cape Cod.

Kidman’s performance has several glorious high points. The first occurs near the beginning of the movie, at the elaborate Christmas party given by Ziegler, Bill’s wealthy patient. Dancing with the Hungarian seducer Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont) and flirtatiously fending off his sexual offers, she is bemused, titillated, sardonic, a little dreamy. Kidman is superb near the movie’s end, when she wakes up, still shaken, next to the mask Bill wore at the orgy the night before, chastened, tentative, and full of regret about her harrowing dream, in which she had sex with a crowd of men while Bill was forced to watch. A few minutes later, presiding over the movie’s final scene, she is reassuring and provocative at once. What is inside this sweet cake?

The peak of Kidman’s achievement in Eyes Wide Shut is the pot-smoking scene that takes place the night after Ziegler’s party. A stoned Alice begins by asking Bill about the two models she saw him with at the party “Did you ... happen ... to ... fuck ... them?”—she tensely ekes out those pauses, a tic that we noticed when she was dancing with Szavost. Bill, flustered and defensive, sputters a lecture about his loyalty to her. Dangerously, he adds that women are not ruled by their desire as men are. This is what sets Alice off. She has a laughing fit, to Bill’s disgust, and then boldly faces him down: “If you men only knew ... ,” she says. And she tells him about her summer fantasy of the naval officer: “I thought that if he wanted me, even if it was for only one night, I was ready to give up everything. You, Helena, my whole fucking future.” Kidman’s acting here is full of expert grace notes that conceal as much as they reveal. She is by turns absorbed, defiant, charged with mockery, and, as she puts it, tender and sad.

Kubrick shut down filming for days to think about the pot-smoking scene. “At certain times he was very controlling,” Kidman reported, but not with her stoned monologue: “He allowed me to really get lost in Alice ... over the course of a year and a half I really just became that woman.” For the most part Eyes Wide Shut is a studied movie, mimicking in its style Cruise’s efforts to manage his emotional reactions. But Kidman’s monologues are freer, almost experimental, and emotionally brittle. Every word she speaks puts her at the center of the movie, from which her husband is excluded.

Kubrick became close friends with both Cruise and Kidman, who told Newsweek that Kubrick “knew us and our relationship as no one else does.” He got to know her “better even than [my] parents,” Kidman said. In none of his previous movies had Kubrick pursued such a curious and intense melding of himself with his actors. He was intimately present with Tom and Nicole for all 16 months of the strangely prolonged shooting. This intensity declares the crucial role that Eyes Wide Shut played in Kubrick’s psyche, as if the movie were the enfolded meaning of his life.

Kubrick’s identification of himself with Bill was clear. Young Stanley had imagined becoming a doctor like his father. Like Bill, Kubrick was polite rather than flirtatious with women, but driven to sexual fantasy. The Harfords’ apartment was modeled on the Kubricks’ own on the Upper West Side in the early ’60s, when Kubrick first wanted to make Dream Story. Eyes Wide Shut, a slow ritual of a movie, was designed to free Kubrick from the obsession with control that it also embodies, to provide a release into renewed relationship with the wife who had been at his side for four decades, with Tom and Nicole standing in for Stanley and Christiane.

Kubrick needed to know everything about Tom and Nicole, both together and separately. During filming Kubrick manipulated his two stars’ off-screen relationship so that he could get the performances he wanted from them, frequently conferring with Nicole apart from Tom. And Kubrick took advantage of Cruise’s absence from the set for several days while he filmed the dream sequence in which a mostly naked Kidman has sex with the naval officer. Cruise, like Bill Harford, remained on the outside.

Bill wants to stay on the outside, excluded from Alice’s fantasy. He turns down Alice’s challenge. “If you men only knew,” she says, but he doesn’t want to know. He refuses to step inside her erotic life. Instead he tries to outplay her, to get rid of his obsession with her fantasy by actually doing what she only dreamed of. She has passed the fantasy on to her husband, forced his eyes open, and in a vengeful spirit he tries to have sex with someone else.

Eyes Wide Shut is about how a man tries to escape from an obsessive fantasy that is not even his. This is a far cry from Clockwork’s Alex, who happily enacts his lurid fantasies of rape and murder. If Bill has his own sexual adventure, he thinks, he can forget his glimpse into Alice’s inner life, and be enjoyably diverted instead by whatever woman he chooses. The obsession, he hopes, will vanish.

But Bill can’t actually choose anyone, as it turns out. His sexual goals are always being supplied by somebody else. Tellingly, Kubrick and Raphael cut from Schnitzler’s novella a fantasy that Fridolin has about a Lolita-like girl on the beach. Dr. Bill has no dream life except what others give him. Women come on to him: He initiates nothing. And he completes nothing—he never has sex with any of them. As in Don Giovanni, in Eyes Wide Shut all erotic encounters are nipped in the bud. And as in Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, sex is shadowed by death.

In Eyes Wide Shut seeking extramarital sex also means courting death. The masked men at the orgy realize Bill is an interloper, and they are about to strip him bare and possibly kill him. A woman offers to “redeem” him, allowing him to escape from the orgy, and the next day Bill becomes convinced that she died instead of him. Bill should have been the sacrificial victim, atoning for his sexual waywardness, but the mysterious woman takes his place.

The molten hot emotional center of Eyes Wide Shut occurs at the orgy, when Red Cloak (Leon Vitali, in a cameo) commands Bill to remove his clothes. A doctor like Bill, fully uniformed, treats near-naked patients. Now the tables are turned: He is told to expose himself. In the Schnitzler novella the doctor hero aches to prove his manhood by committing some daring act, but in Kubrick, Bill Harford is passive, a pawn in somebody else’s game, and he merely freezes instead of defying Red Cloak’s order. Here Cruise’s surface-oriented performance works well, using the patented Cruise “this is crazy” double take. He acts like someone acting like he’s being threatened, a person in a dream trying to wake up.

Bill’s passivity is also front and center in the pool table scene, which has no analogue in Schnitzler. Here Ziegler, who has called in Bill for a man-to-man talk, sets him straight. Ziegler is like Noah Cross in Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), a powerful and depraved older man who keeps all the secrets, and also like Gavin Elster in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the man behind the scenes who controls the plot.

Pollack memorably described Kubrick’s way of nudging him into his role as Ziegler. Pollack said, “You have the boundaries of this scene in your head but then he sort of gives you a little push off and sees where you go and then he starts to correct it slowly and then he records it on video.” Kubrick micromanaged Pollack in a way that was unusual for him. He would then show Pollack the take on video, freeze the frame and say, “See, where you turned your head like that,” or something similar. Pollack added that in the end he “shut up and did exactly what [Kubrick] said.”

Ziegler reminds Bill that he has stumbled into a foreign, frightening world ruled by truly powerful men, the ones able to have women and dispose of them at their will. He tells Bill that the scene at the orgy was staged merely in order to scare him away. The prostitute Mandy was not sacrificed at the orgy, Ziegler insists. She was a typical “hooker” and “junkie,” according to Ziegler, in whose bedroom she overdosed earlier on, during the Christmas party. The day after the orgy, she died the way everyone knew she would, by shooting up a little too much heroin.

Ziegler’s comment on Mandy’s death is devastating in its blandness: “Life goes on. It always does—until it doesn’t.”

For Ziegler there is nothing to see in sex except the fact of it, and the same is true of life and death. He makes sex look grimly devoid of fun. After Bill left the orgy, he says, Mandy “got her brains fucked out”; the pianist Nick Nightingale, who led Bill to the orgy, is probably back in Seattle “banging Mrs. Nick.” Ziegler opens Bill’s eyes, but this is also a closing of the mind, a cynical reduction. By this point in Eyes Wide Shut sex seems both all-important and peculiarly empty.

Kubrick knew he needed to rescue Eyes Wide Shut from Ziegler, and he chose Alice to provide the antidote. Her talk with Bill at the end of the film, as they shop for Christmas presents with their daughter, is exactly the opposite of Ziegler’s speech. She respects a mystery instead of stripping things down to bare facts, so the awkwardness between Bill and Alice develops a grace of its own.

“Maybe, I think, we should be grateful,” Alice now says to Bill, “grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream.” Her lines have a taste of wonder utterly absent from Ziegler’s speech, and are fit for the end of a Mozart opera or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ziegler embodies the joyless wish to be in control, to see without being seen. But for Bill seeing is a trap, not a form of power, both at the orgy and with his fantasy about Alice’s sex with the naval officer, the scene that replays itself over and over in his head. To be released from fantasy’s bonds you must be open to what your wife has to tell you, her unexpected, surprising word. And no word is more surprising than the final one in Kubrick’s final movie.

At the end of Eyes Wide Shut Alice and Bill have awakened—but awakened to what, we wonder. Alice says to Bill, “The important thing is we’re awake now and hopefully for a long time to come.” When Bill asks, “Forever?” she responds, “Forever? ... Let’s not use that word. But I do love you and you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.” “What’s that?” asks Bill. And now comes her last word: “Fuck.”

Stanley Kubrick had a piece of advice for the people he made movies with when they faced a problem that needed to be solved: “Keep asking the question until you get the answer you want.” In Eyes Wide Shut the answer is “fuck,” the mostly unseen activity that the whole movie gravitates around. This reunited couple, chastened by new knowledge, more acutely conscious of each other, will seal their reconciliation with the simple animal act whose image has caused them so much trouble. They had sex after Ziegler’s party; now they will again after their long night of Odyssean separation. But they are in a new place. Alice has exorcised the mocking laughter that she directed at Bill when she was stoned. To move from the dream of fucking, with all its torments, at least to the reality of it—since the truth of it doesn’t exist—that is something. This is the conclusion of Eyes Wide Shut, and of Kubrick’s work. Alice’s “fuck” is surprising, because Eyes Wide Shut mostly avoids profanity, except for the Ziegler scenes. When Bill asks the prostitute Domino what she “recommends” they do, she replies, “I’d rather not put it into words.” At the movie’s end Alice puts it into words, as she did earlier when she asked whether Bill happened to fuck the two models at the party. Those two lovely girls drifted away, never to reappear, a lost chance like all the others in this movie.

The wannabe adulterer Bill suffers from what Schnitzler calls “the treacherous illusion of the missed opportunity.” Alice’s genius at the end is to dispel the illusion and give back to marriage its sense of healing urgency. Married love becomes a chance that the couple needs to take, instead of letting sterile fantasy and dead-end flirtation with others take over the stage. All the seductive near misses during Bill’s night wandering have been false dramas, climaxing in the words of the mysterious woman at the orgy: “I will redeem him.” This too was playacting, words that, we were told, could never be retracted. Now, in the last minutes of Eyes Wide Shut, we hear instead the suspense that comes with an open future. Alice makes no promises, which is the only convincing way to reassure someone, especially in marriage. Hopefully, she says, the two of them will remain awake, but she doesn’t like the word “forever.” Maybe, just maybe, they will redeem each other. In place of the desperate, clinging fantasy of love at the end of A.I., Kubrick expresses a humane realism about it.

A new intimacy steals into Kubrick’s work just as it ends, with the conclusion of Eyes Wide Shut. “No one in his right mind would mistake Kubrick for a humanist,” the critic David Denby wrote about Full Metal Jacket. But he is one in Eyes Wide Shut, which exorcises Kubrick’s earlier pessimism about the chances of individual humans when they are up against the powers that be. The shadowy forces behind the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut don’t win out, unlike the aliens in 2001, the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or the regimes of death in Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. “It was a very good film for an older person to make,” Christiane said about Eyes Wide Shut. “You become softer and more honest with yourself as you grow older. ... Stanley was much more pessimistic, much more cynical, as a young man.”

Just as he took his time, 12 years, between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick took his time, more than ever, with the filming of his last movie. At 16 months, the shoot was the longest in film history. The movie cost $64 million to make and brought in a healthy $22.7 million on its opening weekend. But the critics were circling, ready to slice away at Kubrick’s final movie, which they mostly labeled stiff, pompous, unerotic, and boring.

Kubrick didn’t live to see the disappointed reaction to Eyes Wide Shut, partly the fault of a teaser publicity campaign suggesting that it would be an intensely sexy movie. The attacks centered on the orgy scene, which critics mostly found antiquated and phony, with its glossy Helmut Newton-style nudes in high heels: They had perhaps expected real orgasms and a leather dungeon. “Whose idea of an orgy is this, the Catholic Church’s?” one reviewer complained. But the orgy was supposed to be grandiose and frigid. Critic Lee Siegel grasped the point when he wrote that with the orgy “Kubrick wanted to show that sex without emotion is ritualistic, contrived, and in thrall to authority and fear”: “Compared with the everyday reality of sex and emotion, our fantasies of gratification are, yes, pompous and solemn in the extreme.” As Naremore points out, the orgy is both “sinister” and “silly,” exactly like a dream, and this is clearly Kubrick’s intention.

It is not the orgy but Kidman’s final lines that define the movie. What an unexpected finale to a filmic career full of sublime alternate realities: Eyes Wide Shut ends on a quiet note, a nod to the everyday.

Excerpted from Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker by David Mikics, new from Yale/Jewish Lives. Copyright © 2020 by David Mikics. Reprinted with permission.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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